Proposed Amendment Stirs School Voucher Debate

Like all amendments, it requires 60 percent voter approval to pass

There's a reason you'll find no mention of school vouchers when you read Florida's proposed Amendment 8. If you believe the ballot initiative's supporters, it's because it has absolutely nothing to do with the state using tax dollars to pay for students to attend private schools. If you believe the opponents, it's because it's all a veiled effort to get private school vouchers approved and that if that succeeds in Florida, it will be attempted in more than 30 other states.

The amendment, which is on the Nov. 6 ballot, would remove from the state constitution language that specifically prohibits religious institutions from receiving taxpayer money. However, it goes a step beyond repealing the ban by turning it on its head. Another provision says that people, instead, couldn't be barred from participating in public programs because they've chosen to receive those benefits from religious organizations.

How those changes would be used, however, are as hazy as the "Religious Freedom" title the measure appears under on the ballot.

Backers, funded largely by the Roman Catholic Church, insist they're simply trying to protect the status quo — the hundreds of secular programs run by religious organizations that receive public dollars, including two school voucher programs. Like all amendments, it requires 60 percent voter approval to pass.

"It would be a pre-emptive strike to make sure no activist judge would rule that a Catholic hospital, for example, could not receive funds from Medicaid," said Archbishop Thomas Wenski, the Catholic leader in South Florida and a strong advocate of the amendment. "Do we have reason to be afraid of this? Yes."

Opponents say the fact those programs have gone on for decades is evidence they are in no danger. Courts have permitted public funding as long as it is not used for proselytizing. They also argue the new guarantee of funding for religious organizations would open the door to taxpayer support of groups with anti-Semitic, racist and other extremist views.

The opponents are an eclectic group that includes the Florida Education Association, which is the state public teachers union; the American Civil Liberties Union; the Anti-Defamation League; the League of Women Voters; Americans United for the Separation of Church and State; and the National Council of Jewish Women. They say Amendment 8 has been devised to intentionally mislead voters and reignite the voucher debate.

"The whole effort is built on trying to fool the voters," said Alan Stonecipher of the Vote No on 8 Committee. "It doesn't really have anything to do with religious freedom at all. It's a smoke screen and it's not true. They are perfectly safe under not only the state constitution but the U.S. Constitution. They're not endangered at all."

A voucher program championed by Gov. Jeb Bush that let students from failing public schools attend private schools at taxpayer expense was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2006. Wenski calls that decision an injustice, but he and other backers insist Amendment 8 has nothing to do with the issue. They note the section of the state Constitution they're seeking to rewrite, the so-called Blaine Amendment, was not the reason the court used to strike down vouchers.

The 1st District Court of Appeal, though, did cite the funding ban in an earlier ruling that also found Bush's voucher program unconstitutional. The Supreme Court, instead, based its ruling on another provision requiring a uniform system of public schools.

Ever since, voucher supporters have been trying to get both constitutional provisions changed with no luck until the Republican-led Florida Legislature agreed to put Amendment 8 on the ballot. Two other voucher programs for low-income and disabled children were not covered by the ruling and haven't been challenged.

The Blaine Amendment has been in the Florida Constitution since 1885 and similar language is enshrined in several dozen other state constitutions.

Backers such as Wenski also point to a lawsuit still winding through the courts seeking to cut public money to prison programs run by religious groups. They have been accused of using the funds to advance their religious beliefs. Religious leaders nevertheless say they fear a ruling that would cut state funding to nursing homes, drug treatment facilities and all sorts of other programs run by faith-based organizations.

"If there's passage of Amendment 8, we don't have to worry about this in the future," said Jim Frankowiak, whose Citizens for Religious Freedom and Non-Discrimination organization is running the "Yes on 8" campaign. "We're not proselytizing. These are secular programs, social service programs. Don't cut us out, don't hurt us, don't prevent us from pursuing these things just because we're religious."

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, calls Amendment 8 "clever" and "devious" and says voucher supporters see it as part of a long fight in establishing a voucher program and erasing boundaries between public and religious life.

"It is a beginning volley in an effort to eliminate church-state provisions in 36 other state constitutions. It very much does open the door," Lynn said. "They know it will have an effect. They would not be spending this time and money on an amendment that wouldn't do anything."

Charles Zelden, a constitutional historian at Nova Southeastern University who specializes in politics and voting, said it's hard to decipher the intentions of the amendment's backers, but that passage of the measure could combine with a change in the state Supreme Court to create more of an opening for vouchers. He said it removes one of many potential roadblocks.

"I think what they're doing is playing the long game," Zelden said. "They're looking for small victories along the edges."

Both sides say they worry about the language of the amendment and whether voters might be confused. And in a year in which the presidential election is getting the most attention, it may all come down to how people interpret the language of Amendment 8 in the voting booth.

"For many people the first thing they hear of it is in the polling place," Zelden said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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